This free Information Age Education
is written by Dave Moursund and Bob Sylwester, and produced by Ken
Loge. The newsletter is one component of the Information Age
Education (IAE) publications.
All back issues of the newsletter and subscription information are
In addition, four free books based on the newsletters are
available: Understanding and
Mastering Complexity; Consciousness
and Morality: Recent
an Appropriate 21st Century Education;
and Common Core State
Standards for Education in
This IAE Newsletter is an addition (Part 16) to the previous series on Education for Students’ Futures.
Education for Students' Futures Part 16:
Innovating Minds—What Students Need for the Future
Center for Innovative Education and Prevention
“Everything around you that you call life was made up by
people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can
influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.”
(Steve Jobs; inventor; 1955–2011.)
“We are convinced the world will increasingly be divided between
high imagination-enabled countries, which encourage and enable the
imagination and extras of their people, and low imagination-enabling
countries, which suppress or simply fail to develop their people’s
creative capacities and abilities to spark new ideas, start up new
industries and their own ‘extra.’” Thomas Friedman and Michael
Mandelbaum; That Used to Be Us (2011).
The present and future envisioned in these two quotes sound both a
challenge and an opportunity. The words of Steve Jobs in particular
capture the essence of the mindsets students will need for the future
as they take their place in a world where automation and outsourcing of
routine work are transforming the landscape and their career prospects.
I have had the enormous privilege of teaching cognitive strategies that
support creative thinking to students from kindergarten through college
age and have been inspired by their incredible potential to learn, to
innovate, and to solve problems.
I recall one class in particular on a day when I was sharing a strategy
for fostering creative collaboration that I call story scape. The
students were mostly from low-income families, the children of migrant
farm workers, with limited English proficiency and background
knowledge. They were bright-eyed, brimming with potential, and a joy to
work with, though they lacked confidence in their ability to write a
story. With the story scape strategy, I act out a story based on the
creative input from all students. Usually the stories end up with my
character in great peril. My goal is to make sure that even shyest
students contribute and that all experience the thrill of success fed
by the release of dopamine in their brains over this positive,
We began with the invitation to complete the opening line, “Once upon a time there was a man who was wearing … ?”
“An Elvis Pressley outfit,” the first contributor suggested.
“And he was looking for a … ?”
“Guitar,” piped up a previously reluctant learner who was now at risk
of not being the coolest kid in class, because his friend who had made
the first suggestion was now the center of attention.
“And then he heard a terrifying sound behind him, and he began to run because he was being chased by … ?”
“A giant frog!” exclaimed another student.
“A giant purple frog!” supplied another.
As I acted out the part of a man dressed as Elvis, looking for a guitar
as he is pursued by a giant purple frog, I asked the students, “What
“He trips over the guitar, and the frog is going to get him!” This suggestion was greeted by peals of delighted laughter.
“OK, now what creative way can he solve his problem?” I asked.
The room fell silent, as every brain strained for an innovative
solution to this dilemma. Some students looked pensive and others a bit
anguished, and I could almost see them playing out various scenarios
before their minds’ eyes (which is itself a strategy to facilitate
In a quiet voice, a shy girl who had yet to speak said, “The Elvis man
picks up the guitar and sings the giant purple frog a lullaby, so he
goes to sleep.”
I was stunned by how perfect her solution seemed, and so were her
teacher and classmates. Our silence was broken by a great spontaneous
round of applause. Then the excited students set out to write their
version of the story, adding details about the characters, plot,
plight, and resolution.
This experience captures a great deal of what has fueled my passion for
developing strategies to cultivate the cognitive skills that underpin
innovative thinking and entrepreneurial doing so that every child is
empowered to create his or her own story.
‘Sputnik Moment’: Urgent Need to Learn and Teach Creative Thinking Skills
“The problem is that there are only 1.2 billion full-time,
formal jobs in the world. This is a potentially devastating global
shortfall of about 1.8 billion good jobs. It means that global
unemployment for those seeking a formal good job with a paycheck and
30+hours of steady work approaches a staggering 50%.” Jim Clifton, The Coming Jobs War (2011, p. 2).
In That Used to Be Us,
Friedman and Mandelbaum (2011) make the case that for organizations to
survive and individuals to thrive, each of us must harness the power of
imagination and enhance our capacity for creativity and innovation to
deliver that necessary something “extra.” We can better prepare
students for that uncertain future through explicit instruction on how
and when to use cognitive skills that are the everyday tools of
innovators and entrepreneurs so that they may take their place in what
Richard Florida (2014) calls the creative class. At the core of the
creative class are people whose “chief economic function is to create
new ideas, new technology, and new creative content.” Developing this
skill set is imperative for success in an evolving and devastatingly
tight job market:
The creative class makes up one third to nearly one half of the
workforce in the economically advanced nations of North America,
Europe, and Asia. It represents about 40 million jobs in the United
Even as traditional skills are being outsourced or rendered
obsolete through automation, creative and innovating skills are hot
The current limited opportunities for education and training in
these skills contribute to the deepening economic divide—the difference
between landing good-paying jobs with opportunities for advancement and
Underscoring the critical need to empower this generation with
the creative and innovative thinking skills that will increase their
An Adobe Systems poll of 5,000 people on three continents reports
that 80% see unlocking creative potential as crucial to economic
growth. But only 25% feel they are living up to their creative
A recent IBM survey of more 1,500 CEOs reports that creativity is
the single most prized competency among employees and managers.
Research on creativity—how well people generate ideas, how
original their ideas are, and how they persist in the work of turning
ideas into effective action—shows a steady decline in skills related to
creativity and innovation over the past 20 years.
In an era where virtually all new jobs created are in small and
mid-sized enterprises, we must find ways to nurture innovative thinking
and entrepreneurial mindsets in today’s workforce and in students who
will be the future job candidates—and proprietors—of those enterprises.
As Florida puts it, “Prosperity in the Creative Age turns on human
potential. It can only be fully realized when each and every worker is
recognized and empowered as a source of creativity—when their talents
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first human-built satellite into
orbit around the Earth—and so began the space race with the United
States that spawned a remarkable decade of engineering and exploration
ending in astronauts walking on the moon. The current creativity crisis
should be our wake-up call to better prepare students to become
tomorrow’s innovators. Unfortunately, current education and training
systems in the United States and other industrialized nations focus on
developing analytic skills and the retention of facts, which are
necessary but no longer sufficient for engaging young minds and
preparing them to thrive in the working world. For many of us,
capacities for creativity are not cultivated and may even be
discouraged in the process of our education. One study, for example,
found that the vast majority of young children start school exhibiting
high levels of creativity, which decline steadily throughout the school
years into adulthood, leading one researcher to conclude that
“non-creative behavior is learned.” Research indicates that creativity
has declined steadily in the United States since the 1990s across key
domains (Kim, 2012).
However, emerging research from fields such as mind, brain, and
education—and studies of creativity—indicate tremendous opportunities
for nurturing the creative capacities of children and equipping
students and adults with a cognitive toolkit of skills to enhance and
act on their innovative thinking.
Awakening the Brain’s Creative Potential
The word education is derived from the latin root e-ducere,
which means “to lead out.” Experiences literally shape the brain, and
the neurocognitive systems associated with creative thinking are
malleable. Furthermore, creativity is relatively independent of
traditional measures of human potential such as IQ. New research is
also overturning the common myth that creativity is a special gift that
only a lucky few possess. The profound implication of these findings is
that almost all of us have the capacity to learn to be more creative
and innovative. It is now possible to create learning environments and
opportunities in classrooms and workplaces that lead out more of the
creative potential of all learners. In our work across North America
and Europe and around the world, one thing has become clear: In the
hyper-connected innovation age, it is essential that we cultivate the
cognitive skills for identifying opportunities and creating,
evaluating, and applying new ideas that generate unique, relevant,
added value. We need to be both innovative thinkers and entrepreneurial
doers. We need to develop innovating minds.
Every day learners of all ages come to school with their brains powered
by some 87 billion to 100 billion neurons. Through brain imaging and
other technologies, neuroscientists have begun to identify key neural
systems involved in the creative process. The science of creative
cognition is expanding our understanding of the cognitive skills that
drive the creativity. At the same time useful theories can be applied
in the process of cultivating creative and innovative thinking.
Sternberg (1985; Sternberg & Lubart, 1995) describes three key
abilities that can be developed to increase creative thinking skills.
In essence, these three abilities underpin what innovating minds do in
terms of creative thinking and entrepreneurial doing:
Synthetic ability refers
to generating novel, creative ideas. People with well-developed
synthetic thinking are recognized as innovative because they make
connections that others don’t recognize.
Analytic ability refers
to critical thinking and problem-solving skills resulting from the
identification and evaluation of possible solutions. Analytic thinking
supports creativity by weeding out bad ideas and highlighting the most
promising possibilities. Innovating minds rely on analysis to consider
all angles of a creative idea and test it out.
Practical ability refers
to translating ideas into reality. Innovators use practical ability to
make an abstract concept concrete, to demonstrate its usefulness, and
to identify the people most likely to benefit from its use.
Different “brain states,” or ways of thinking, can be applied to
enhance creative and innovative thinking. Some of these states may not
come easily to everyone, but they can be cultivated over time. We can
train our brains to become more creatively productive and to
proactively apply innovative ways of thinking to creative challenges
Neuroscientists have identified two key brain networks, referred to as the executive attention and default mode
networks, involved in creative thinking. The executive attention
network, connecting outer regions of the prefrontal cortex to areas in
the posterior region of the parietal lobe, is active when cognitive
control is required in the problem-solving, evaluation, and
implementation phases of innovation. In contrast, the default mode
network, which some researchers refer to as the “imagination network,”
is involved in “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on
personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking
about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives
and scenarios to the present” (Kaufman, 2013). This network
involves areas in the prefrontal cortex, temporal lobe, and
parietal cortex, drawing on information stored in long-term memory and
on regions associated with personal memories. Studies suggest that this
network is highly active during the brainstorming and free association
phases of creative thinking. As research continues on which areas of
the brain are most involved in creative cognition, we may learn more
about how and when to tap into these networks to come up with
innovative ideas and then to evaluate and implement them.
To thrive in the global innovation economy, today’s students need
to become creative thinkers and entrepreneurial doers who can
collaborate, create, and implement new ideas that add relevant added
value. They need to become skilled in identifying problems and
opportunities, dreaming up and dialoguing possible solutions,
elaborating and enhancing the best ideas, and applying and refining
them in response to feedback. All of these skills can be taught and
learned. Students have great untapped potential to become more creative
and to make the most of their creative, analytic, and practical
abilities. The question is whether we have the will to provide the
game-changing opportunity to cultivate the innovating minds that
students need for the future.
Carson, S. (2012). Your creative brain: Seven steps to maximize imagination, productivity, and innovation in your life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Clifton, J. (2011). The coming jobs war. Omaha, NE: Gallup Press.
Florida, R. (2014). Rise of the creative class. New York: Basic Books.
Friedman, T.L., & Mandelbaum, M. (2011). That used to be us. New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux.
Sternberg, R.J. (1985). Beyond IQ: A triarchic theory of intelligence. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University.
Sternberg, R.J., & Lubart, T.I. (1995). Defying the crowd: Cultivating creativity in a culture of conformity. New York: Free.
Vartanian, O., Bristol, A.S., & Kaufman, J.C. (eds.). (2013). The neuroscience of creativity. Boston: MIT.
Marcus Conyers is cofounder of the nonprofit Center for Innovative
Education and Prevention and author of several books, including Positively Smarter: Using Educational Neuroscience to Increase Happiness, Achievement, and Well-Being (in press with Wiley), Five Big Ideas for Effective Teaching: Connecting Mind, Brain, and Education Research to Classroom Practice (Teachers College Press, 2013), and Innovating Minds: Using Educational Neuroscience to Increase Creative Thinking Skills
(in process with Wiley), and will be developing the website
InnovatingMinds.org as a free resource to support educators in
fostering creative thinking skills globally. He is the developer of the
IDEA process for cultivating creative thinking skills and is a
codeveloper with Donna Wilson of curriculum for graduate programs with
majors in Brain-Based Teaching at Nova Southeastern University. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.
We are using the Disqus commenting system to facilitate comments and
discussions pertaining to this newsletter. To use Disqus, please
click the Login link below and sign in.
If you have
questions about how to use Disqus, please refer to this help